A couple of years ago, I stumbled across a late-night BBC4 documentary about
a jazz character whose story was completely unfamiliar to me. The Jazz Baroness was an intriguing film about a vivacious, jazz-loving British aristocrat – one of the Rothschilds no less – who, upon hearing the eccentric pianist/composer Thelonious Monk on record for the first time, abandoned her children and her marriage to set up home in New York and lead the “jazz life”. She became a sort of girlfriday to the bebop pianist who was troubled by mental problems and addiction. She acted as his muse, his manager, his chauffeur, his best friend, his protector and even, when his drugs were found in her car, his fall guy. And she, alone, cared for him during the last decade of his life.
The story may have been unfamiliar, but the name of this fascinating character wasn’t: Pannonica or “Nica” Rothschild inspired more than 20 jazz compositions, several of them by Monk, whom she described as “the eighth wonder of the world”; the others by musicians whom she helped during her three decades driving them around in her famous Bentley, providing welfare and opening her door to them in times of trouble.
Indeed, it was in her suite at the swanky Stanhope Hotel that Charlie Parker died; a tragedy which propelled Nica’s name into the gossip columns – much to the chagrin of her family back home.
Now, the filmmaker Hannah Rothschild (clearly no jazz expert, judging from some of the gauche references to jazz which are scattered through the early
part of the book) has penned a compelling biography of her great-aunt, whom she only met briefly at the end of her life – and had hoped to get to know better. (That frustration – that she was just a little too late in forging a relationship with her elderly relative – is tangible.) Unlike her documentary, which mostly concentrated on the relationship between Nica and Monk, and the unexpected similarities between their two backgrounds, Hannah’s book also fully fleshes out her first three decades, before (thanks to her friend Teddy Wilson) she heard that life-changing recording of Round Midnight.
And what a three decades she had already had. Although she was born into a the oppressive world of high society where children were seen and not heard, and girls didn’t have any function other than to be decorative, marry well and produce heirs (fewer options even than the black, southern-born Monk), the slightly wild Nica had had a few attempts at breaking out before – but always ended up being caught and put back in her gilded cage.
Shackled by marriage, status and motherhood, Nica came to life during the war when she joined the French Resistance and served alongside her husband in Africa. Like women from all social strata, she was expected to slip back into her domestic role once peace had broken out but she was bored and frustrated.
Hannah Rothschild was given access to interviews conducted with Nica not long before she died. In one of the tapes, she heard Nica explain that she had a “calling” to jazz in 1949 when she heard Duke Ellington’s symphony Black, Brown and Beige. Shortly afterwards came the exposure to Monk’s music. And she knew what she had to do.
Had Hannah Rothschild not had access to Nica’s own explanation of why she never returned to her husband and children, and had merely speculated, this “calling” explanation would be laughable. But what shines through on every page is the amount of passionate research and foraging through her family’s past – often to the fury of some Rothschilds – that Hannah has done in her multi-pronged quest to understand Nica, to understand her relationship with Monk, to answer the question “is it possible to escape from one’s past or are we forever trapped in layers of inherited attitudes and ancient expectation?”.
In the film, Hannah Rothschild’s presence and personal connection to Nica get a little in the way of the story. But in the book, her unique, insider, understanding of her family – the history of which she traces back to the squalid Jewish ghetto in Frankfurt in the 1700s – arguably helps her to make better sense of Nica than an outsider might. Her obvious empathy and affection inspire her to perhaps delve deeper for an explanation for some of Nica’s more questionable decisions (those involving her children) – and perhaps to want to make her a sympathetic character.
She recognises Nica’s all-consuming passion (in her case, for jazz and Monk) as a family trait. And, having known Nica’s siblings – and, briefly, Nica herself – she understands the family dynamics and the Rothschild pragmatism, as well as the family’s familiarity with mental illness. It could well have been one of the bonds between Nica, who had watched her father go insane and eventually kill himself, and Monk, whose mentally ill father died in an asylum.
What emerges is a colourful, entertaining study of a fearless, fiercely loyal, independent, audacious and slightly bonkers adventuress who was regarded with tremendous affection – and bemusement – by those who knew her in the jazz community. There is a nod to the school of thought that she was nothing more than a rich white lady who bought her way into the jazz scene, and to the theory that perhaps the Monks saw her as a golden goose.
Hannah herself admits, late on in the book, that she couldn’t bear to think that Nica’s blind devotion to Monk might have been taken advantage of. She prefers to think that in return for friendship, which had been missing from her childhood, Nica “made her sliver of a great fortune go a little further. She made a difference”.
But whether she was a glorified groupie or not, the Baroness emerges just as Hannah describes the impression she formed of her when they first met: “a woman who seemed at home and knew where she belonged”. Their meeting place? A New York jazz club.
* The Jazz Baroness is available on DVD.